Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
ESPN.com never wastes any time looking ahead to the following season, and sure enough, the site's 'way too early' Top 25 is out, along with the conference power rankings.
Why they might finish higher: The Gophers continue to make strides under coach Jerry Kill, who guided them to an 8-5 record and their first New Year's Day bowl game in 52 years in 2014. There are some key pieces to replace on offense and defense this season, but the bulk of the two-deep depth chart is coming back.
Why they might finish lower: The Gophers are losing Cobb and Williams, their top two weapons on offense. Williams, who caught 36 passes for 569 yards with eight touchdowns, is entering the NFL draft after his sophomore season. Cobb ran for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns, and the Gophers will have a difficult time replacing his production. Quarterback Mitch Leidner played better in a 33-17 loss to Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, but he has to continue to improve as a passer. The Gophers were too one-dimensional on offense this past season.
The Gophers had a narrow increase in home attendance this season, to 47,865 per game. According to a report from CBSSports.com, this came in a year when attendance across the nation dropped to its lowest since 2000.
The CBSSports.com report notes that Ohio State led the nation 106,296 fans per game, followed by Texas A&M (105,123) and Michigan (104,909). This ended Michigan's 16-year run as the nation's attendance leader.
The report notes that average attendance in the Big Ten was 66,939, down from 70,431 last year, which was largely the result of adding Maryland and Rutgers. Maryland had a 14 percent increase in attendance but was still at 46,981, and Rutgers had a 9 percent attendance increase to 50,639.
Nationally, the average for FBS schools was 43,483, the lowest since it was 42,631 in 2000.
Here's a look at the Gophers' year-by-year average attendance in six seasons at 50,805-seat TCF Bank Stadium:
2009 -- 50,805
2010 -- 49,513
2011 -- 47,714
2012 -- 46,637
2013 -- 47,797
2014 -- 47,865
I'll have a correction in Tuesday's paper after writing the following on Page C5, in Monday's print editions. Under the "You might have missed" category from Saturday's win at Nebraska, I wrote:
• Fullback Miles Tarver made a big block to help spring Rodrick Williams on his 19-yard touchdown run, which came on fourth-and-1 with the Gophers trailing 24-14.
Yep, I mistakenly have former Gophers basketball player Miles Tarver playing fullback now. Brain cramp by me. It obviously should have been Miles Thomas.
I feel terrible because Thomas has been such an unsung guy anyway. Coach Jerry Kill was raving about that block Sunday and talking about how Thomas keeps getting better and better. Thomas walked on from Butler Community College and has filled the huge void left by Mike Henry's graduation.
Thomas has five receptions for 37 yards, and seemingly all of them have given the Gophers a key first down.
"Our fullback, shoot, some people don’t even know his name, what he’s done," Kill said Sunday.
And a few hours later, I proved it with what I wrote in the paper. Sheesh. My bad. I definitely regret the error.
David Cobb still ranks third in the nation with 25.2 rushes per game, but the Gophers lightened his load in last week’s win over Iowa, giving him 16 carries for 74 yards. And the week before that, Minnesota had a bye.
“I was just telling my running backs coach I feel as good as I did at the start of the season,” said Cobb, who ranks ninth in the nation with 133.9 yards per game.
Cobb made an impact even when he wasn’t carrying the ball against Iowa. Coach Jerry Kill was thrilled with Cobb’s blocking, which helped give Mitch Leidner more time to pass and helped open holes for KJ Maye on the jet sweep. Blocking well will only help raise Cobb’s NFL Draft stock.
“They all know he can run, and if he blocks well, he’ll make a lot of money,” Kill said. “So I think a good back does that, and it is unselfish. But if you want to have all the goals that he has in life, he knows he’s got to be able to block.”
Mark Snyder has spent years covering the Michigan beat for the Detroit Free Press, and he’s been a go-to source for me with any question I’ve had about the Wolverines. Here’s a sample of his outstanding work.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark__Snyder (double underscore)
We traded e-mails this week, preparing for Saturday’s game at the Big House. You can check out the Q & A I did for the Free Press here, and Mark was kind enough to answer my questions, too:
1. Do you think Brady Hoke is ready to start Shane Morris, or will he stick with Devin Gardner?
A: I'm past the point of trying to figure out his decisions, because we don't know enough about the criteria. But I assume he would try to go with Morris because, if not, what was all this for? If he stays with Gardner after a week of making him re-earn his job, that seems like a very public demerit. If he goes with Morris, Gardner knows it's an ongoing competition.
2. Devin Funchess dominated the Gophers last year. Will they see a different player Saturday, and why?
A: He is battling a leg injury that he suffered against Notre Dame and has noticeably been affected since. He said it will be painful all year but he's willing to play through it. (Obviously a potential firs round draft pick, it's worth the effort.) Funchess' greatest limitation last week was Devin Gardner's wayward passes and he still caught four passes in the first half for more than 80 yards. If Gardner or Shane Morris is more accurate, Funchess is a problem for anyone.
3. I see a true freshman starts at left tackle. What’s your general assessment of the offensive line?
A: They've been better than last year but that's not saying much for one of the worst offensive lines in Michigan history. Against equal talent -- Notre Dame and Utah -- they've gotten little push for the running game. The problem is they're all juniors or younger so physically they're still maturing. There may be a change there this week.
4. The Gophers can run, but they have struggled mightily with passing. How do you think that plays to Michigan’s defensive strengths?
A: It should be good on good that way because U-M's run defense has been outstanding the past three weeks. The secondary has been better since the Notre Dame first half debacle, but there was leakage last week as Utah hit a few plays. Michigan's corners -- except Jabrill Peppers -- are still small which makes them vulnerable to size. Playing without their starting safety and corner the past two weeks, both injured, doesn't allow for a good read.
5. How big of a crowd would you expect for Saturday and what will be their mood at kickoff?
A: It may be still over 100,000 but possibly not by much. At least this is an opponent that people have heard of and I assume Berkley Edwards' fan base will fill in the empty seats. Seriously, though, there will be a short fuse with the fans that are there, wanting to see improvement. But whatever the crowd, it'll still be more than 98% of the teams in the country, which is still pretty darn impressive.
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